Nina Mae, “The Black Greta Garbo”: First Black Film Actress To Grace The Silver Screen (video)


For better or worse, the narratives we often hear about, very rarely include actress Nina Mae McKinney. Referred to as “The Black Greta Garbo”, McKinney is reportedly the first Black film actress to grace the silver screen in small but notable parts, and has the distinction of also being the first Black actress to appear on British television.

Born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina, Nina got her start as a 16-year-old dancer in the chorus line on Broadway, in Lew Leslie’s production Blackbirds of 1928; a performance that resulted in her snagging the part of ‘Chick’ in King Vidor’s first all-Black 1929 talking picture Hallelujah, as a last minute replacement for Ethel Waters or Honey Brown, who were both being considered for the role. While Hallelujah wasn’t a massive commercial success, it still garnered enough attention to put Nina Mae McKinney on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) radar; the film studio signed her to a 5 year contract. But as was par for the course for most Black actresses, her career fell prey to the contentious racial politics in the U.S. during that time. Despite contracting McKinney, MGM was reluctant to cast the beautiful starlet in feature films, placing most of her scenes on the cutting room floor while using her singing voice to dub over Jean Harlowe’s.

Much to her dismay, the actress could only get roles in bit (stereotypical) parts through other studio productions, so moved to and toured throughout Europe, most notably to France and the UK, where she found success as a sought after cabaret singer and starred in the British based movie Sanders of the River, alongside Paul Robeson- (who later condemned the film after discovering it’d been re-edited during post-production, to the favor of white imperialism).

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  • Erick Dean Tippett May 6, 2017 - 3:09 am

    She, Robeson, and other black actors also worked with independent Afro/American movie producer Oscar
    Micheaux who was boycotted by both blacks and whites in response to his controversial silent movie “Within
    Our Gates” produced in 1918 and shown for the first time several years ago on The Movie Channel hosted by Robert Osborne who described the boycott! Miss McKinney’s frustration like that of Lena Horne and others later during the forties at MGM simply reflects what Charley Manson himself remarked in his last televised interview: “In the United States the black (male, female) does what the white man lets them do!”

    In essence has anything really changed concerning this issue and american culture and society in general?
    And how about the very people from whose communities these brave personalities derived? Were they
    lionized and made legends amongst their own people like white society has done for their heroes and
    legends regardless of their private lives? (See you-tube’s presentation of white male icons Cary Grant
    and Randolph Scott and see if you can believe what is revealed about their relationship over a fifteen
    year period). The white male not only dominates the black he gets to eat his cake and enjoy his ‘jollies’
    as well! Who in hell is going to hand over that kind of power to a people considered ‘inferior’ to them
    selves and other races in a racial pecking order established by them?

    Go hit you-tube or google up Cary Grant and Randolph Scott (America’s Mr. Lady’s man and Mr. Cowboy)
    if you can stomach it!

    Erick Dean Tippett
    Retired Musician/Teacher
    Chicago, Illinois

  • Terry Turner May 6, 2017 - 1:47 pm

    Hello Mr. Tippett how does anyone retire from music? Why? lol

    • Erick Dean Tippett May 6, 2017 - 6:46 pm

      I am not active professionally, but continue to practice my craft as performer. And by the way, what does this
      term you use lol which I’m noticing in use so much on website commentary supposed to mean?

  • mackare jones May 6, 2017 - 6:11 pm

    Since you chose to quote Charles Manson, Mr. Tippett, you are only half right about what the white man allowed Africans to do; part of that equation is how much Africans allow the white man to control them. To day Africans realize that they had to cooperate partly in their own oppression. Many African people have come the conclusion that their minds were in bondage as much as their bodies. Please don’t quote sick twisted degenerate white men to make a point!!

    • Erick Dean Tippett May 6, 2017 - 7:00 pm

      Even the mind of a “sick twisted degenerate” white male can utter a word of truth on occasion however
      disturbing you or anyone else may choose to view it. I stated in the commentary about the boycott against
      Oscar Micheaux in 1918 how blacks instead of supporting the man and pondering his messages in the film chose instead to join the voices opposing him another example of how blacks “cooperate partly in their own
      oppression” and have done so for years!

  • Terry Turner May 6, 2017 - 6:55 pm

    Oh gee lol, it means: laugh out loud.
    You can also look up the definitions for the abbreviations.

    It’s good to know you have not given up music entirely.
    Music is my life next to God, be blessed.

  • Erick Dean Tippett May 6, 2017 - 7:03 pm

    So good to hear music has been a significant part of your spiritual focus. I too have found it to truly be the
    food of life.

    Best wishes and peace!

  • Terry Turner May 6, 2017 - 7:23 pm

    Absolutely, thank you kind sir.